Pioneering environmentalist Dr. Henry Clark praised after retiring from commission


Dr. Henry Clark, who was born and raised in North Richmond, has been a thorn in the side of city officials and industry in Richmond and abroad for decades.

But when he recently announced his retirement from the Contra Costa County Hazardous Materials Commission, on which he represented the West County Toxics Coalition since 1993, his legacy was praised not only by environmentalists but also by officials with the institutions he often targeted, including Chevron.

That’s Dr. Clark pictured in one of his dapper suits, receiving an honor from Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia.

“Dr. Clark has been an inspiring advocate for West County communities,” said Andrea Bailey, community engagement manager for Chevron Richmond. “We have an incredible respect for him and will miss his leadership on the commission.”

To Dr. Clark, receiving praise from all sides of the negotiations table should not be a surprise. His managing to hold industry’s feet to the fire without burning bridges comes with a simple formula. The formula includes respect, fairness and authenticity.

“Unfortunately a lot of folks in the environmental movement don’t see it like this, they don’t think it’s politically correct, but I always try to be fair with everyone,” Dr. Clark said. “Some people may not like what I say or how I said it, but I don’t think anyone ever said I told a lie on them. The fact is environmental justice means being just and fair to everyone involved, period.”

Dr. Clark says environmental justice in North Richmond built steam in the 1980s, when community leaders, industry leaders and city officials “came to the table for the first time.”

For a long time, Clark said, the community “had no organization addressing these issues.” Not until the West County Toxic Coalition (WCTC) was founded. In 1986, Clark became the executive director of the coalition and helped the group pioneer environmental justice in West County via protests and hard-charging appeals to politicians, elected officials and business leaders.

Dr.HenryClark.3-2-1The coalition not only started to create change in North Richmond, but built a blueprint for change that spread both nationally and internationally. Clark has traveled the world to share his group’s strategies, and has also returned with new strategies for West County. Of his many adventures, he traveled to Puerto Rico to support a lawsuit involving a former U.S. Navy base’s toxic pollution, and also stood beside communities near petroleum production facilities in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, WCTC continued to be staunch advocates of West County communities, particularly in and around North Richmond. In 2001, the coalition convinced environmental regulators to install a dioxin monitor in the community. In 2007, the group organized a drive that helped successfully cease plans to build a crematorium, which was said to pose a mercury-emissions risk to North Richmond residents. In 1999, WCTC was instrumental in earmarking money from a General Chemical Co.  sulfuric acid spill to open the Center for Health.

Dr. Clark says the keys to the success of the coalition is meaningful dialogue. He recalls his first personal victory in the 1980s, when Chevron officials agreed to relocate ammonia storage tanks on the refinery property to a location farther away from the North Richmond community.

“We sat down and got to some understanding,” he said. “That was the first big accomplishment. That was something major for us and our community.”

Dr. Clark said possibly his best victory yet is his most recent, when Richmond City Council approved a Chevron Richmond Refinery Modernization Project. The upcoming $1 billion project, which will bring more than 1,000 construction jobs to the community, will create a cleaner, more efficient and safer plant. In addition, Dr. Clark helped advocate for the Environmental and Community Investment Agreement (ECIA), a $90 million package that includes greenhouse gas emissions reductions measures, the Richmond Promise college scholarship program, a large solar farm on refinery property, nonprofit grants geared toward community improvement projects and other initiatives.

“I guarantee this, what came out of Chevron Modernization was the biggest environmental justice victory that has been accomplished that I’m aware of anywhere in the country and world,” Dr. Clark said.

The County Board of Supervisors recognized Dr. Clark for setting “an exemplary standard for participation on the Hazardous Materials Commission through his willingness to listen other perspectives and achieve compromise.”

On the commission, he made valuable recommendations to the Board of Supervisors including the development of the County’s Industrial Safety Ordinance, Community Warning System and Environmental Justice Policy.

“Dr. Clark has been a fierce protector of the community’s health during his years as a member of Contra Costa’s Hazardous Materials Commission,” Supervisor John Gioia said. “County residents can thank Dr. Clark for his strong voice on their behalf on the Commission. We will miss his voice.”

But Dr. Clark’s tried and true formula for achieving concessions will remain. The Chevron Modernization Project, he said, brought everyone to be table in spite of their differences, and mutual respect led to an agreement.

“A lot of people in the environmental movement don’t like to hear me say that,” Dr. Clark said. “I’m not playing politics. I work for justice, period.”

In the second image, Dr. Clark is pictured alongside Ambassador Andrew Young.


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